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David Proval: Evil Genius

As its newest—and cruelest—made man, David Proval adds punch to The Sopranos.

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In typically dazzling fashion, the Jan. 30 episode of The Sopranos introduced us to old-school goodfella Richie Aprile. Fresh from a 10-year stint in the slammer, Richie pays a visit to a former “business associate” — hapless pizza-place owner Beansie — and in that inimitable gangland way of getting reacquainted, he does for the glass coffee carafe what James Cagney did for the grapefruit.

It’s a disturbing moment even for this knock-down drag-out show, largely thanks to the man behind the menace, actor David Proval, who doesn’t so much breathe life into Richie as drain all humanity from him. Delivering his lines with a mordant monotone and a deadeyed glare, Proval affects a chilling less-is-more demeanor, all animal instinct and cool calculation.

Of his character’s ultraviolent run-in with Beansie, Proval says, ”It was an immediate show of power — [Richie’s] a man of very little patience.”

You can’t say the same for the Brooklyn-born Proval, 57, for whom the Sopranos gig caps a nearly 30-year career in the TV and film trenches, reaching all the way back to a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s seminal gangster flick, Mean Streets. Along the way, Proval snagged the limelight at the 1978 Toronto film festival for his role (as a mentally retarded delivery boy) in Nunzio, which was chosen for a special screening.

He met Sopranos creator David Chase four years ago when he was cast in a Chase-produced Rockford Files TV movie as — get this — a mobster on lithium. (“It was more of a bizarre character than Tony [Soprano],” he says, nevertheless noting, “Chase was beginning to toy with that whole idea.”)

In fact, Chase originally called Proval in to read for the part of Tony. But after seeing James Gandolfini’s take on the New Jersey capo, Proval couldn’t argue with Chase’s ultimate choice: “I understood that they found perfection…. The everyman, a guy who could be your next-door neighbor. I put out more of a darker vibe.” (Clearly, Proval is also a master of understatement.)

But just when he thought he was out, casting chief Georgianne Walken pulled Proval back in…to audition for Richie. “She said, ‘We’re looking for a Joe Pesci,’ and I said, ‘Well, he’s out on a golf course somewhere in west L.A. if you want him, but that’s not the way I want to go with this character.'” Upon seeing his take on the role (which he describes as Pesci “without the frenetic”), Proval says Walken told him, “You scare the life out of me.”

Proval is the latest in a seemingly endless string of pitch-perfect casting choices for the series. “Part of the reality of the show is that these people weren’t household faces,” points out Carolyn Strauss, HBO senior vice president in charge of original programming, who has had the pleasure of watching so-called nobodys like Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Dominic Chianese, and Michael Imperioli become stars in their own right. “Once the people who eventually got cast read [the script], it was so clear that they were the right person for the role.”